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Was South Florida ready for Wilma?

From the governor to the man on the street, people say they weren't prepared enough.

By TAMARA LUSH, ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, STEVE BOUSQUET and STEVE THOMPSON
Published October 27, 2005


MIAMI - Complaints about the slow pace of recovery after Hurricane Wilma have exposed two problems: The state wasn't as prepared as it thought and neither were residents of South Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who boasted Monday how prepared the state was, acknowledged shortcomings Wednesday in getting water, ice and food to victims. He accepted full responsibility.

"We did not perform to where we want to be," Bush said.

Many residents admitted they didn't amass enough food, water or gasoline to survive the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.

"I didn't prepare like I should have," said George Knight, 60, who waited for hours for gas at a North Miami Beach service station. "And now, I've got to suffer."

Millions of people from Palm Beach to south Miami-Dade counties today begin their fourth day without electricity. But power has been restored to 690,000 of the 3.2-million customers who had lost it.

The widespread power outage meant gas stations couldn't pump, leaving thousands without fuel. Downed traffic lights turned short drives into life-threatening situations. And half the hospitals in South Florida were still operating on generators.

Meanwhile, there were unconfirmed reports that generators operating the pumps at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale were having problems, possibly undermining South Florida's main gasoline distribution point.

"We've got hospitals that are getting ready to run out, nursing homes that are running out," said Assistant Palm Beach County Administrator Vince Bonvento. "Our fuel resource is very, very low right now to support our infrastructure, fire rescue and the Sheriff's Office. We've got maybe a day's supply left."

Warnings ignored

Thousands of people stood in line for hours for the second day in a row for water and ice in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Sometimes their wait was in vain, and some complained that distribution was limited and disorganized. Miami-Dade County's mayor called the system "flawed." Some storm victims used more colorful adjectives.

Many problems affected supply deliveries, local and state officials said. Cell phone service was down or spotty, complicating communications between government officials and truck drivers. Some drivers got lost on their way to distribution points and had to be brought there by police escort.

Local governments prematurely released distribution sites and times, causing crowds to gather hours before supplies arrived. Supplies were short or it took far too long to get them to the proper places, officials said.

Military-style meals ready to eat were in short supply because so many were used in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "The previous hurricanes had depleted the national supply," said Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management chief.

Emergency planners urge people to prepare for hurricanes with enough water, canned goods, medications, cash and other essentials to last them 72 hours.

"People had ample time to prepare, and it isn't that hard to get 72 hours of food and water, to do the simple things that we ask people to do," Bush said.

But many in South Florida said they didn't think Wilma would be that serious, despite repeated warnings by the National Hurricane Center and news coverage.

Aline Plante, 64, is already out of food and water. Her husband draws water out of a neighbor's well and carries it to their Hollywood home in a bucket. That way, they can at least flush the toilet.

"Nobody's got a thing here," Plante said. "No water, nothing."

Plante said she has lived in Florida for 42 years and knows how to prepare. She stocked up on steaks and water, figuring the hurricane would be an inconvenience at most, like the storms that brushed by Broward.

"You never think it's going to be this strong," she said.

Many businesses in Broward didn't even bother to board up their shops.

Yet Hurricane Wilma was most destructive in Broward, which hasn't seen a major storm in 50 years. Wilma tarnished the skyscrapers in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The hurricane's powerful winds wrecked the roofs of many mobile homes, tore down traffic lights and toppled street signs.

Palm Beach County officials distributed food and water at 13 points throughout the county. Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman said the county distributed 36 truckloads of water, 24 of ice and nine of food. "I think most of the folks who were waiting in line got what they needed," he said.

But he wasn't sure what will happen today. "We can't guarantee how many we're going to have because of the shortage that exists statewide," he said.

Bush accepts blame

Complaints of delayed supplies or shortages started within 24 hours of Wilma's arrival and continued Wednesday.

"I've raised the bar probably maybe too high," Bush said. "We did not meet those expectations and I accept responsibility for that. Today's going to be better. Tomorrow's going to be better than today."

Bush's buck-stops-here candor was unusual, given the state's impressive track record of hurricane preparedness and the governor's personal reluctance to publicly admit failures in governing.

But he had little choice. Bush has said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unfairly blamed for problems that are the responsibility of state and local governments. On Monday, he criticized Louisiana's response to Katrina. "In the case of Louisiana, it was left to the federal government to fill a void, and the consequences are there for the rest of the world to see," Bush said then.

Relief efforts are slightly better on the Gulf Coast and in the Keys. Both Collier and Monroe counties were getting electricity restored at a quicker rate.

In Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, people were adjusting to the idea that power was a long way off. In Broward, 95 percent of the customers, or about 840,000 accounts, still lacked electricity Wednesday morning. That's a higher percentage without power than Miami-Dade (83 percent) or Palm Beach (89 percent).

"We're victims of invention," said Rio Giardinieri, 38, who waited for at least five hours at a North Miami Beach gas station so he could get gas for his generators to power two refrigerators and his TV. "We like the life of luxury."

With no television to watch or radio to listen to, many people spent Wednesday waiting in lines for the basics. Tammy Coleman, 35, idled in her car outside Dania Beach City Hall waiting to pick up ice so her kids wouldn't complain so much about drinking lukewarm bottled water. "It's something that'll be nice for them," she said. "Kids like their water cold."

Simon McAuliffe, 41, of Fort Lauderdale, stood in line for several hours outside a Salvation Army post in Broward for a meal of soggy grilled chicken breast, strawberry-flavored applesauce and some baked potato chips. The wait was long, he said, but it beat boredom at home. "There's not much to do," McAuliffe said.

At a gas station in North Miami Beach, a group of Haitian men waited on the sidewalk near their cars, speaking in Creole about how losing power would not have crippled their lives in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. "We've been Americanized too much," said Jaques Edward, 39. "If we were living like Haitians, we wouldn't be in trouble."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.